I shot the sheriff, the deputy, the marshall, the bartender…
Boy howdy, what a long, dusty trail it’s been, waiting for a seemingly-constipated industry to pinch out the all-too-rare loaf of classic Western gaming. What have we got, really? Let’s see: We’ve got Dust, (which was, like, a decade ago), we’ve got Outlaws (see above), we’ve got Red Dead Revolver (depending on who you ask), and we’ve got Darkwatch (a genre-bender, rather than a straight western). Beyond that, the classic Western game has gotten no respect…with one new, welcome exception. Neversoft’s Gun, while ultimately on the lean side, is the best thing to happen to Western video games since Clint learned to squint.
Players take the role of Colton White, a clear amalgam of various Western heroes – again, heavy on at least three shades of Eastwood, a bit lighter on the anti-hero. White is initially portrayed as a decent enough guy, if a little on the gruff, noncommittal side, with excellent voice work courtesy of Thomas Jane.
In fact, basically all the voice work is A-grade stuff, starting right off the bat with the trapper Ned White (voiced to straight faced, gravelly perfection by Kris Kristofferson), introduced as Colton’s father in a brief but excellent tutorial. You don’t usually talk about a game’s voice acting straight away, but convincing, absorbing voice work is crucial to the credibility of a game narrative, and the story in Gun does the genre proud, right down to its inherent greed, lust, duplicity, and sleazy, no-good evil.
Players are quickly vaulted into the first serious chunk of the narrative, depriving Colton of his father figure during a river-boat raid, and sending him – enigmatic saloon/brothel token in hand – to seek out Jenny, a Dodge City working girl who, in turn, will lead Colton to a vengeful pursuit of men a type lower than Colton has ever encountered. Whether Colton pursues his destiny with a minimum or maximum of ancillary bloodshed is up to you.
As for base mechanics, this is basically Grand Theft Mustang. While there is a core, driving story here, the player is soon given free-roaming privileges, able to pick up a number of side missions and tasks, ranging from the obvious wanted-poster manhunts to purely greed-inspired trollings for silver and gold (once you purchase a pickaxe, that is).
Westerns are primarily about shooting guns and riding horses, and everything else, including inclinations to be Good, Bad or Ugly, often seems incidental. The same is true here…and luckily, the mechanics save most (not all) of the day. While the game is primarily a third-person follow-cam affair, much attention is given to the Quickdraw scheme, in which players get a first-person slowed viewpoint when wielding Colton’s pistols. Quite literally, it’s bullet-time.
The Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood “spaghetti westerns” made massively deep boot-prints on the genre in terms of style and attitude, and nothing was badder-of-ass than when Eastwood’s Man With No Name would “fan” his six-shooter, suddenly wiping out three, four, or five at least equally armed tough guys in the space of a drawn breath. To simulate the cranked-up reflexes of the expert gunslinger, Gun not only slows the time down (an obligatory game spec, by now), but also incorporates analog stick flick-targeting, allowing you to instantly turn your vengeful, killing eye from one target to the next.
At one point, you’ll find yourself defending against an Apache onslaught on a nearly-completed bridge (which, moronically, has kegs of dynamite just sort of sitting around at structurally-inadvisable junctures). The clever Apaches start launching flaming arrows at said kegs, and that can’t be good, right? So, guess what you need to do? That’s right— flick, flick, flick, gun the damned things down in mid-flight, thanks to your unreal gunslinger’s eye. Even Stephen King’s Roland of Gilead would give a low whistle of approval.
The whole flick-targeting thing has met with less success in other titles (Advent Rising may come to mind), but the scheme remains under reasonable wraps here for two reasons: A) It’s only available in the first-person/pistol Quickdraw mode, which is of finite duration, and B) the limit on said duration is set somewhere between the Quickdraw gauge’s natural depletion and how many stylish, bad ass things you can do during that time to extend it, things like cranium-obliterating headshots (real time-savers, those), taking out loads of baddies by hitting the kegs of TNT they’ve plonked their dumb asses down on, or even shooting the irons right out of their hands. Yes, they nailed it that well. In fact, don’t be surprised if your sharpshooting skills and some luckless soul’s noose become involved. The Gun designers have left no stone unemulated, no hat untipped.
We mentioned horses a while back, and they’re here for the riding, shooting and stealing. Not to the same degree of density as cars in Liberty City, of course, and the equine here don’t have individual, all C&W ‘radio stations,’ thanks a wise and merciful God. They handle well if a bit stiffly and can even be used in rearing-up trample attacks and potentially devastating slide attacks that can take out well-arranged lines of men or beasts in short, satisfying order. Spur your ride on, and he’ll giddyap at a faster rate; go overboard with it, and he’ll croak.
But before you start staining your chaps in understandable overeagerness, we’ve got to talk about some of the downsides. First, there’s the core storyline, the game’s biggest simultaneous draw and hindrance. It’s too short, and if you’re drawn into the gravity-well of enthusiasm for the narrative, you’re apt to be spit out all too soon by the white hole of brevity (Sorry – it’s a busy game season and we’re fresh out of era-appropriate, Western imagery).
Uppity gamers might also want to start off on the Hard difficulty level, as the Normal level combat seems far too forgiving. The side-quests aren’t serious brain- or brawn-busters, and while they rapidly reap cool rewards, they mostly just extend what should already have been a vastly extended main story.
One other problem is that the Xbox 360 version, to once again mangle compatible vernacular, ain’t all that. Slightly better draw-distance, some sharper textures, and some more ‘realistic’ looking facial features (which, once applied to HDTV, actually look more overfocused and creepy than convincing)…and that’s about it. Frankly, the Gamecube version of Gun holds up just fine, although it’s arguably the most strained in terms of control scheme. No standout differences on any skew…so why the standout price difference?
All this, in the end, is what your lower-class card rooms would call ‘piddly sh*t’. Gun is a solid game that, on all platforms, performs admirably, draws you into the story, takes itself (and you) seriously, and does the genre proud. It’s too thin around the waist to really tangle with the big boys, but let’s all pray that some new development house picks up Neversoft’s Western-themed token, to cash it in wisely at some gaming den of sin.